Week 14 NFL preview
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Cleveland Browns at Buffalo Bills
On offense, these two teams are about as evenly matched as two teams could be - 311.8 to 305.4 yards per game in Buffalo's favor, 111.4 to 107.9 rushing yards per game with the Browns in the lead, tied in first downs per game with 17.3 and 20.3 points per game for the Bills to 19.1 on Cleveland's side. On defense, the Browns have a few advantages - they're allowing 51.8 fewer rushing yards per game (119.1 to 170.9), they have a much higher interception rate (4.37 percent to 2.19 percent), and red zone conversion percentage allowed (62.50 to 48.48). Add in the fact that the Bills allow 27.8 points per game to Cleveland's 19.9, and it's easy to see where the Bills need to focus their efforts in the offseason.
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Why have the Bengals lost nine straight games? A host of reasons, but we can start with the fact that few teams put themselves in bigger holes early in drives, or need more production on first down. Cincinnati ranks 11th in overall offensive efficiency on first down, but the offense drops to league average on second-and short/middle distance, and 30th in second-and-long situations. That plays into their below-average third-down efficiency, and explains why they're in the bottom third in third-down conversions. However, no team has converted more fourth-down attempts than the Bengals - their 85% rate (11 of 13) leads the league.
Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions
The percentage of shotgun formations has tripled in the NFL over the last decade, with more and more teams going away from the under center look on at least half of their offensive plays. But the 2010 Lions have taken that to an entirely new level; they're going shotgun on an amazing 67.3 percent of their offensive plays, and they're wise to do so. They have the NFL's second-worst DVOA in non-shotgun sets, and they're averaging just 3.6 yards per non-shotgun play, which is the lowest in the league. When their quarterbacks back away, the DVOA shoots up to 19th, and the yards per play to 5.7. Of course, when you're facing a good defense, some things don't matter - the Packers rank fifth in Defensive DVOA both against shotgun and non-shotgun offensive plays.
New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings scored 31 points in the first half against the Bills last week, which is more than they've scored in any other game all season, with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback after Brett Favre was taken from the game with an early injury. And no, there were no defensive or special teams scores; two passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns and a field goal lends legitimacy to Jackson's performance, though he's probably not the team's long-term answer at the position. Of course, the Vikings will cater to Favre if he's healthy - after all, there's a consecutive games started stark to consider! Two numbers the Vikings and interim head coach Leslie Frazier will not want to consider: Favre's league-leading 5.1% interception rate (18 in 351 attempts), and the Giants' No. 1 ranking in Pass Defense DVOA.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Redskins
The Redskins' conversion to a 3-4 defense this season has been an absolute failure, and the responsibly for that lies everywhere (it's not just Albert Haynesworth). They're getting beaten deep with alarming regularity (41 plays of 20 yards or more in 449 attempts against), allowing 4.99 running back yards per carry, stuffing opposing running plays just 17 percent of the time (ranking 24th in the NFL), and allowing more second-level and open-field yards than just about any team in the NFL. They also rank 30th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric, which counts sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers
Few teams can brag of a better balance, or more overall efficiency, than the Falcons right now - that's why they're 10-2, probably the best team in the NFC, and most likely the NFL's second-best team behind the New England Patriots. They've converted an amazing 48 percent of their third downs, and the primary reason for that is that Roddy White is the NFL's best third-down receiver. On that down, quarterback Matt Ryan has found White 27 times for 420 yards and three touchdowns. The 1-11 Panthers struggle with a lot of things (mostly on offense), but they are 16th in third-down Defensive DVOA against the pass. If the Falcons unleash Michael Turner on the Panthers in those situations, they'll probably have more success - Carolina ranks 27th in third-down DVOA against the run.
Oakland Raiders at Jacksonville Jaguars
Here's a quick quarterback comparison: Quarterback 1 is averaging 8.9 yards per pass, 6.5 per completion, has an interception rate of 3.4%, and gets 5.95 yards after catch per play from his receivers. Quarterback 2 is also averaging 8.9 yards per pass, 5.9 per completion, 6.79 yards after catch, and a 2.9% interception rate. Quarterback 1 is Donovan McNabb. Quarterback 2 is Jason Campbell. Whoops! In the long term, you have to wonder if Campbell can't be a viable option for the Raiders. He's trying to prove that to his new team, while David Garrard is trying to get Jaguars fans to believe in him once again. This season, he's got a higher cumulative efficiency metric than either McNabb or Campbell, and that might be enough for a division title with Maurice Jones-Drew behind him.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
No team has given up more receptions of 20 yards or more than the Seahawks, but they have little to worry about in the person of San Francisco's Alex Smith, who will return to his starting spot this week. Among qualifying starters, only Carolina's Jimmy Clausen has fewer plays of 20 yards or more than Smith, who has managed just 16 on 242 attempts. The 49ers are also trying to fill a major hole in their offense with the loss of running back Frank Gore for the season to a hip injury. Gore accounted for 1,305 yards from scrimmage this season, seventh-highest in the league, and he's currently the team's leading receiver with 46 catches.
St. Louis Rams at New Orleans Saints
You'd expect that as their offense coalesces and Reggie Bush gets healthy, the Saints would start to get their game back on track. The numbers back it up - from Weeks 1-9, New Orleans ranked 12th in Offensive DVOA, and they've raised that to second overall in Weeks 10-13. But the Rams and rookie quarterback Sam Bradford have seen a similar uptick down the stretch - up to 19th in DVOA after Week 9 after finishing 28th in the first half of the season. You can put a lot of that behind Bradford - while the Rams' rushing attack has been static from an efficiency perspective, Bradford has raised his DVOA from 27th to 19th.
Miami Dolphins at New York Jets
So, we know that Roddy White is the NFL's best third-down receiver. Three guesses for the name of the AFC's most prolific at that position... Give up? Try Davone Bess of the Miami Dolphins, a third-year undrafted free agent. Bess has caught 26 third-down passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns, and he has 35 first downs overall. That shouldn't be a surprise - last season, he was responsible for 48 first downs on 76 catches. And as good as the Jets' defense has been, they're 29th in DVOA against third- and fourth-down passes.
Denver Broncos at Arizona Cardinals
Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace may be the NFL's fastest full-time receiver, but nobody's put more air underneath a football on a play-by-play basis than Denver's Brandon Lloyd. Among receivers targeted at least 40 times this season, Lloyd leads the league with 16.3 Air Yards (yards between the moment the ball leaves the quarterback's hand and the moment the receiver catches it, with no yards after catch) per reception. Pretty good, considering he's been targeted 119 times, but he could be a little more efficient - Lloyd's catching just half of the balls thrown to him. Still, he ranks first overall in Football Outsiders' cumulative efficiency metrics, and he's a major reason that Denver offense has been so surprisingly good. These numbers will come as no solace to the Cardinals, who rank 29th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers.
Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers
If the Chiefs win the AFC West, is it time to give running back Jamaal Charles some love in the MVP voting? Probably not, since he's part of a running back platoon and Kansas City's passing attack has really risen up lately. But it's certainly past time to recognize Charles as one of the NFL's best backs - he ranks second in the NFL behind Houston's Arian Foster in yards from scrimmage with 1,516, and he is the league's most efficient running back on a per-play basis. The Chiefs have worked Charles into their outside zone blocking to perfection, and it's really paying off.
New England Patriots at Chicago Bears
It may surprise you to know that the 2010 Patriots, with their two-tight end sets, multiple rushing options, and comparative lack of deep threats, are on pace to exceed the efficiency metrics of the most explosive offense of all time ... the 2007 Patriots. Those '07 Pats wound up with the highest Offensive DVOA in the history of Football Outsiders' metrics, but they also fell to earth in the season's last few games - they had a 51.5 percent DVOA in their first eight games, and a 36.8 percent DVOA in the last eight games, for a total Offensive DVOA of 45.2 percent. This season, the Pats started off at 32.7 percent in the first eight games, and they're rocking a ridiculous 79.1 percent Offensive DVOA since. That's what happens when you beat the Jets, 45-3.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
It's all well and good that the Cowboys are 3-1 in the Jason Garrett Era, but lets hold off on the 2011 Super Bowl predictions. Of the three teams they've beaten since Garrett took over (the Giants, Lions, and Colts), only the G-Men aren't either in total freefall or trying to find their way. Dallas has improved from 22nd to 10th in Passing DVOA in the season's second half (an interesting endorsement of the Jon Kitna Era as well), but the Rushing DVOA has actually fallen a bit. In the short term, things could get ugly for Dallas' secondary - they rank dead last in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, and 28th against No. 2 guys. Guys, meet DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Yikes.
Baltimore Ravens at Houston Texans
And speaking of historic DVOA, there is the historically bad Defensive DVOA of the Houston Texans. At this point, the Texans have the fourth-worst Defensive DVOA ever after 13 games, behind the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008 and two different St. Louis Rams teams from the last decade. Their final four opponents currently rank 12th (Baltimore), 23rd (Tennessee), 10th (Denver), and 15th (Jacksonville) in Offensive DVOA. Hardly a Murderers' Row, but most any team would find this defense to be an easy mark. The Ravens could see Houston's secondary as a particularly appealing vacation spot after last Sunday's heartbreaking loss to the Steelers - Baltimore ranks eighth in Passing DVOA and Anquan Boldin should light up that defensive backfield.